There’s a sense of the inevitable about the end of landline phones. The widespread use of mobiles, and the growing popularity of VoIP, are rendering the once mighty home phone redundant. So why is it that we still face mandatory line-rental charges with broadband plans?
Openreach: What is line-rental?
Almost all broadband providers use the same extensive network of cables - known as the Openreach network - to deliver the world wide web to your screen. The majority of the network’s infrastructure was in place long before the first online data transmission was sent. In fact, the cables were installed in concurrence with the development of landline phones throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Essentially, your broadband is being delivered through your phone line. Whether we make phone calls or not, we get charged for line-rental with our monthly broadband deals precisely because our internet service provider rents space from the Openreach network to deliver its broadband service.
Line rental costs cover the maintenance and upkeep of that network. The upside to this is that you can make use of the landline - perfect for emergencies or for when your smartphone runs out of battery.
If you’re moving home and want to know your home phone number, take a look at how to find your landline number in 2019.
ImportantPaying line rental is not the same as paying for phone time. Line-rental is a fixed monthly fee which is charged alongside your chosen phone plan and provider tariffs.
What does BT have to do with it?
This network of phone lines is owned and maintained by Openreach, which was formed in 2006 as an arm of the BT group. This means that Openreach is formally owned by BT. It's important to note, however, that as of 2016 it has operated as a separate legal entity.
Around the time of the internet boom in 1994, the last phase of BT’s privatisation was completed. Given the extent of BT's landline network, measures were put in place to ensure that competition could thrive: Namely, by opening up the existing infrastructure to other licensed telecoms providers for a fee.
Access to Openreach’s network of phone lines means that any internet service provider can take advantage of the existing infrastructure to connect customers to the internet through their own servers and dedicated online networks.
Major internet providers, including BT - with the exception of Virgin Media - pay to use the Openreach network. Although they use the same lines, not all broadband speed is equal. Providers apply different techniques and equipment within the infrastructure to provide a distinct broadband network and service.
Landline phones and broadband
So what exactly is the link between landline phones, line rental and broadband? Well, the cables used to plug people into a matrix of connectivity through house phones are the very same cables that providers rent - and that we help maintain through line rental fees - to grant us access to the glorious world of the internet.
Those who remember the first wave of dial up internet access at home will undoubtedly recall the terrible download speeds and the unbearable cacophony heard over the telephone line whenever someone was using the internet.
Modern ADSL broadband internet comes with a broadband filter that means we no longer have to ‘disconnect’ from the internet to use the house phone. But without the symphony of deafening screeches and beeps puncturing home phones, it can be hard to remember that our broadband connection is provided through the phone lines - especially if we skip out on land-line telephones all together.
Fact!When using your home broadband connection, data is being sent and received through copper phone lines. Your modem - and the modern modem-router - converts digital signals from your computer into analogue signals for copper wires.
Because these signals share space with the analogue signals from house phones, interference is a major problem. This is where broadband filters come in! These filters split the signals so that we can use the internet and the land line phone at the same time.
FTTP: What if I have fibre broadband?
Fibre optic cables have changed the game, somewhat. It is possible to get an FTTP connection - fibre to the premises - thus eliminating landline rental costs. However, the majority of fibre optic cables also make use of the existing Openreach infrastructure and its more than likely that only FTTC connections are available to you.
Most fibre optic broadband uses an FTTC connection - fibre to the cabinet - rather than FTTP home wiring. These cables are installed in Openreach network tunnels and go through your local telephone exchange and street cabinet. Traditional copper wires connecting homes to cabinets do the rest of the work.
FTTP is still in its infancy. But with increasing demand for more Mbps, better download and upload speeds, and superfast broadband connections, FTTP is likely to become more accessible.
The rollout of this type of connection is limited and may not be available in your postcode area. Here are a few providers offering an FTTP bundle.
How much does line-rental cost?
The price of line rental tends to fluctuate in line with the wholesale rates charged to your Internet service provider. When prices increase, the costs get passed on to customers.
It used to be the case that broadband providers could advertise their products with separate pricing for broadband and line rental. That is, until Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that only 23% of survey participants could ascertain the correct monthly prices of these package deals. Now, providers have to present broadband prices with a monthly total that’s inclusive of line rental cost.
Virgin Media is the most notable provider that doesn’t make use of the Openreach network. It has invested heavily in the installation of its own network and offers broadband without phone deals. You can of course get Virgin Media line rental too.
A brief history of BT Openreach
As landline phone technology became available to British businesses and the general public, extensive networks of cables were installed by the General Post Office - a government body at the time - as well as by various private entities.
In 1912, the General Post Office took over the cable network owned by the largest private provider, effectively giving it a monopoly over the telephone lines in the UK. This was the genesis of the Openreach network.
Did you know?Phone lines installed by separate entities weren’t exactly ‘connected’.
In 1901, free intercommunication was introduced for the first time in London between the systems of the two biggest providers, General Post Office and the National Phone Company.
In 1905, they both agreed to work together toward the unification of the two networks.
Over the course of the 20th century, the General Post Office ceased functioning as a government body and was incorporated as a nationalised industry. More than a decade later, the Telecommunications Act of 1981 was introduced to create BT - British Telecom - by severing the telecommunications arm of the Post Office.
The Thatcher government of the early 80s, fresh from a second election victory, set off the privatisation of BT. Deregulation of the telecoms market, coupled with the safeguarding of competition, cleared the path for the current climate of the UK telecommunications industry.